The two terms, low context and high context are used in a society to give description of the broad-brush cultural differences. Let’s describe each term independently. Low context is where people in a society have several connections but short lived, or have the connections for a given reason. In such societies, the cultural beliefs and behavior are explicitly spelled out. This is done to help those from outside that society or environment to be able to know how to behave or do in that community. The cultures in these societies are individualistic, linear, logical, and action oriented. The people in low culture society give more value to logic, directness, and facts. During problem solving, people in these societies lays down the facts and evaluate each fact by itself. The final decision will be concluded based on the evaluated facts rather than intuition. The end of discussion under the low cultural context is characterized by actions, and the communicators under this context of culture are expected to be concise, straightforward, and efficient in telling the expectations of the action. For the communicators to be absolutely clear, they prefer to make use of precise words, and they intent the words to be taken literally.
Low context is characterized by: people are rule oriented that is people play rules from outside, a lot of knowledge is public, codified, accessible, and external, there is a sequence separation of space, time, relationships, and activities, the knowledge in most case is transferred, and activities and decisions are focused around what should be done. Good examples of low context are: large United States airports, cafeteria, chain supermarkets, sport, convenience store, and motel where in each, rules are written out clearly (Rusell, 1999, p.53).
On the other side, high context refers to where people in a society or a given group have are close connections over a long period of time. The cultural aspects in this context of culture are made implicitly because the members who belong to these societies or groups know what to do and what to think since the have had long time interacting with each other in the group or society. Good examples that we can give to understand high context are: the family gatherings, small religious gatherings, expensive restaurant gourmet, on-campus friendship, neighborhood restaurant which has clientele coming frequently, regular pick-up games, and staying with your friends in your house for the whole night. In our families we understand well what we are supposed to do even without being. The cultures under these societies are collective, relational, contemplative, and intuitive.
The implication here is that people in these cultures give more emphasis on interpersonal relationship. For any business transaction to take place within the members of these societies, trust must exist between or among the parties involved. According to Edward Hall, under these cultures prefer harmony of a group, consensus to achievement of individuals and are collectivist. People in this context of culture are not governed mostly by reasons but by feelings or intuition. Activities and decision are focused on personal relationship of face-to-face, where in most case the person who has the authority in the group make the decision and defines what to be done. Words are not commonly used as context, which may include the voice tone of the speaker, gestures facial expression, posture and status and history of a person’s family. In this we mean that the members have internalized understanding of what is said or communicated by the speaker. The members of the high context have strong boundaries of who is considered to belong in their society and those considered to be outsiders or from other cultural environment (http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/communication_tools/)
From the above two context we can now clearly differentiate the two in terms of relationship structure and type of the cultural knowledge. Considering the structural relationship, under the high context we find that the structure has a long term relationship and intersecting networks. There are strong boundaries, dense relationship structure and the relationship is valued more than the task in high context. On the other hand, low context structural relationship is lose, the networks are wide, the relationship is of short term and compartmentalized, and the task is given more value as compared to the relationship. On the side of cultural knowledge, under high context, knowledge in most cases is below the waterline, that is, people do things out of implicit commands. The pattern of culture knowledge are hard to explain for the members who belong to that particular culture, and not fully conscious. Under low context the knowledge in most cases is above the waterline that is consciously fully organized in an explicit manner
If you are an outsider it is very difficult to enter into high context culture. The reason to this is because, you do not have the internal context information that is need for you to participate as a member, and that you can not create close relationship instantly. With the low context culture one can enter easily if he or she is an outsider. The reason for this is because the environment under the low context has all the information you required to participate as a member and one can create the relationship instantly and fairly. Also an outsider can enter a low context environment easily because the significant thing with the low context is to accomplish the task than entering into a relationship. It is good to note better that under these two contexts that, every situation and every culture there is always aspects of both low and high contexts. In most cases one situation contains outer low context ring and inner context core for those individuals who are less involved. For example, a situation where we can have a low context environment is that of Parent Teachers Association. Any parent is at liberty to join the association.
Here the parent can acquire the knowledge concerning the dates of the meeting, and the chairperson of the association, based on what will be discussed during the meeting. All these information is explicitly available, and it is clear for an outsider to participate in the meetings. Supposing this was a small town, may be those individuals who run the parents teachers association are familiar with each other and may have interest which are overlapping. They may come into consensus on what need to happen or discussed without use of words. This has the implication that the parents have unexpressed and unconscious value that influence the way in which they make their decisions. Parents who come from outside the town may not be familiar with how the decisions need to be made, and therefore under this situation the parents-teachers association is a low context, but it has a subgroup which is a high context (http://www.culture-at-work.com/highlow.html)
The choice of either low context or high context as label has resulted into unfortunate misunderstandings during communication and negotiations. This is because the two have an implication of ranking. Between the two none is better or worse than the other. Each one of the contexts has possible limitations during negotiations or communication. Communitarians and individualism are important dimensions in conflict and conflict resolution. In the communitarian or collective settings children are taught that they belong to particular circle of relations. This identity to a particular group appears first to an individual.
On the other hand, individualist patterns entail the idea of self-interdependent, autonomous, and self-directed. The two contexts affect they manner in which negotiations or conflict resolutions is done. In communitarian setting which depicts high context, members are rewarded because of conforming to the values and norms of that particular group. They are also rewarded because of cooperation and interdependence. Wherever these people are, they try to identify themselves to a particular group. This has actually barred several negations as when conflicts arises responses and behavior arise jointly. For example, fighting the war against terrorism has been a challenging issue, as when suspects of terrorism are captured, the Muslim religion claims that their religion is the one target and not fighting terrorism. Another case where the two contexts affect negotiations is where a particular group of people have preference on the means to be used to resolve the conflict
If participants in a negotiation have different perspective based on their context of culture, this will impede the agreement aimed at. The collectivist and individualist who belong in different culture context may misunderstand the intention of each other and be frustrated with the style of negotiation of each other. For example, the individualist may misconstrue the preference of collectivist for building a trust prior to proceedings with negotiations as way of delaying, while the collectivist may be charged by the frank of individualist and demands of direct statement during the process of negotiation. Also the individualist may miss subtle signals of communication and be frustrated with the inability of to just say no or yes.
The individualist may point an accusation finger to collectivist of not having good faith when the collectivists try to renegotiate issues that were considered resolved by the individualist, but the are viewed by the collectivist as under considered until the thee two parties reach a concrete agreement. A good example is that of U.S president the individualist and the Japan prime minister the collectivist in 1969 negotiation on trade. The president of United States claimed that Japan was exercising export restrain from U.S. The Japan prime minister did not give a yes or no answer, but said he will do his best to see the matter resolved. The president understood that they had come to a positive agreement which was not the case. Individualists who evaluates options quickly and take the course of action decision may misunderstand the conscious and deliberate approach of making decisions by the collectivists. In case the individualist hurries to make the decision, the collectivist feels more pressured as they need to go and consult their in-group members so that they can come up with a decision that suits every member in their society (Russell, 1999, p. 103).
Different in culture context have resulted to slow process of negotiation. Individualist and the collectivist each have their own way of preference of resolving conflicts. To come to a consensus, it takes the mediator long time to explain to each group the cultural assumptions and up on which the models of mediation will be based. If the problem to be resolved was a serious issue affecting many people, the problem may worsen in the process resolving it. An example, of this is the resolution of the violence between two nations as a result of a given resource (Russell, 1999, p. 105).
Communicating Across Cultures. Retrieved on 2nd march, 2009 from http://www.culture-at-work.com/highlow.html
Communication Tools for Understanding Cultural Differences. Retrieved on 2nd march, 2009 from http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/communication_tools/
Russell Sunshine, (1999). Negotiating for International development: A Practitioner’s Handbook. New York: Greenwood, pp. 53, 103, 105